Surface Forces: LCS Woes Continue

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August 19, 2015: The navy continues having problems with it new LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) vessels. The latest problems are development delays that have to do with poor management of three unique weapons systems developed for the LCS. The simplest weapon involved is a surface launched Hellfire missile. This missile was designed to be launched from aircraft but it has been long suggested that it be adapted for use from the surface, specifically from warships. The LCS Hellfire has been named the Surface-to-Surface Missile Module and won’t be ready for service until 2017. This module includes 24 Hellfire missiles. The problems are minor compared to the two other problematic modules; the one for mine hunting and one for ASW (anti-submarine warfare) system. The MCM (Mine CounterMeasures) module has no major problems with any of its sensors or mine destroying systems. The problems are with the “integration” (the hardware and software created to get all components of the MCM module to work efficiently together.) The MCM module was supposed to be operational by now but additional debugging will delay this at least until 2016.

The worst problems are with the ASW module. All the components work well and integration is fine but in getting all this done someone lost track of module weight, which was not supposed to exceed 105 tons. The excess weight must be removed before the LCS can safely and reliably use the ASW module. This will prove expensive since most of the ASW components involved have been around for a while and are not easily or cheaply modified.

These modules are in addition to the basic armament of the LCS which includes a 57mm gun, four 12.7mm machine-guns, two 30mm autocannons, and a 21 cell SeaRam system for aircraft and missile defense. The RAM (RIM-116 "Rolling Air Frame") missiles replaces the earlier Phalanx autocannon. SeaRAM has a longer range (7.5 kilometers) than the Phalanx (two kilometers).

In 2011 the navy decided to equip LCS with a surface launched version of the Griffin air-to-surface missile. The Griffin was developed as an alternative to the Hellfire II, which weighs 48.2 kg (106 pounds) and carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead and has a range of 8,000 meters. In contrast, the Griffin weighs only 16 kg (35 pounds), with a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead which is larger, in proportion to its size, than the one carried by the larger Hellfire missile. Griffin has pop-out wings, allowing it to glide, and thus has a longer range (15 kilometers) than Hellfire. The surface-launched Griffin weighs about twice as much as the air launched version because of the addition of a rocket to get it into the air, after which it can glide to the target. The ship launched version was successfully test fired in 2013 and was be installed in the LCS by 2014 or 2015. But it was soon realized that the Griffin took longer to reach a target than the Hellfire and that the speed difference could be critical given the types of targets this system was designed to handle (small armed boats some carrying missiles of explosives for a suicide attack). So the navy went back to the Hellfire.

In another interesting change at the start of 2015 the navy decided reclassify the LCS as frigates. This was not unexpected as in size and function the LCS ships were very comparable to frigates. This type of ship was created during World War II as “Destroyer Escorts” (or DE, versus DD for destroyer). These were basically destroyers that were slower (smaller engines), smaller (fewer weapons) and meant for escorting convoys and patrolling areas where major warships were not expected. The DEs proved more useful than expected and were retained after the war and eventually renamed as frigates (FF) type ships. The LCS was meant to be much more than a frigate and used a very innovative design. All that did not work out as expected.

All these problems, the new ones and many old ones, caused the navy to decide in early 2014 to cut the number to be built from 52 to 32. Mostly this was about shrinking budgets, but there’s also the fact that the LCS has been, for many admirals and politicians, much more troublesome than expected. This was to be expected because the LCS was a radical new warship design and these always have a lot of problems at first. LCS was basically a replacement for the older frigates as well as several jobs frigates did not handle. The LCS has gone through the usual debugging process for a new design and that has attracted a lot of unwelcome media attention. On a more ominous note the navy has decided to study the possibility of developing a new frigate design, which would incorporate some of the lessons learned with the LCS. Because of the money shortage that is also stalled.

Despite all the problems many in the navy still believe that the LCS is worth the effort. Costing less than a quarter what a 9,000 ton destroyer goes for and with only a third of the crew the navy sees many tasks where the LCS can do a job that would otherwise require a destroyer or frigate. The navy could have built a new class of frigates, but the LCS design was a lot more flexible, making it possible for different “mission packages” to be quickly installed so that LCS could do what the navy needed (like assemble a lot of mine clearing ships or anti-submarine vessels) in an emergency. This has not worked out as well as expected.

The LCS has many novel features which required a lot of tweaking to get working properly. One much resisted latest tweak was to crew size, with ten personnel being added. That made a big difference, because all LCSs have accommodations for only 75 personnel. Normally, a ship of this size would have a crew of about 200. The basic LCS crew was 40, with the other 35 berths occupied by operators of special equipment or special personnel (SEALs or technical specialists). In practice the original crew was usually 55. That was 40 for running the ship and about 15 for the mission package. From now on the number of personnel running the ship increases to 50.

There were problems, and this was expected with a new design. The small LCS crew size was just one of many. The navy found that despite lots of automation, which works fine on commercial ships, there was still too much to do on a military ship for the basic 40 man crew. For many uniquely military tasks everyone (officers and sailors) pitched in and that got the job done and was great for crew morale. But it left the crew exhausted when they came back from more than a few months at sea. So work logs were examined, crewmen were interviewed, numbers were crunched and it was decided that increasing basic crew size 25 percent would make it big difference. That worked and was made a permanent change.

The LCS crews are also modularized so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules. Thus about 40 percent of the ship is empty, with a large cargo hold into which the mission package gear is inserted and then removed, along with the package crew, when it is no longer assigned to that ship. Thus the LCS has two crews when underway, the "ship" crew and the mission package crew. The captain of the ship crew is in charge and the officer commanding the mission package is simply the officer in charge of the mission package gear and functions. There are a variety of interchangeable modules (e.g., air defense, underwater warfare, special operations, surface attack, etc.), which allow the ships to be quickly reconfigured for various specialized missions. Crews will also be modularized so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules. The design and crew requirements for these modules is still a work in progress but also shows a need for more people or more automation. These mission packages took longer than expected to design and build and were not as quick and easy to install and remove as planned. At this point the mission package problems are the major ones.

Despite the seemingly endless list of problems, in 2012 it was decided to put the ship into mass production and build at least 52 of them. There are actually two LCS designs, or classes; the monohull (traditional) USS Freedom class and the USS Independence class which is a radical trimaran design. All the media attention to the teething problems is unavoidable. The navy knew that there would be years of uncertainty and experimentation as this radical new combat ship design was worked hard to find out what works, to what degree, and what doesn't. There is some nervousness about all this. The U.S. Navy has not introduced a radical new design for nearly a century. The last such new design was the aircraft carrier, which required two decades of experimentation and a major war to nail down what worked. Even the nuclear submarines of the late 1950s and early 60s were evolutionary compared to what the LCS is trying to do.

By 2010 both LCS designs were in service. The much smaller crew required some changes in how a crew ran a ship and how many sailors and civilians were required back on land to support a LCS at sea. It was found that the interchangeable mission modules take far longer (2-3 days instead of 2-3 hours) to replace. The LCS has still not seen combat but has been deployed overseas. The navy wants the first violent encounter to be successful, or at least not disastrous. It is expected that there will be surprises, which is about all that can be guaranteed at this point. LCSs are now being sent overseas for periods as long as 16 months. In addition each LCS actually has two complete crews ("blue" and "gold") of 50 (plus mission package personnel) who take turns running the ship. This makes it possible to keep an LCS at a distant posting for years, by simply flying in a relief crew every six months.

The navy surprised everyone in 2010 by choosing both designs and requesting that the fifty or so LCS ships be split between the two very different looking ships. While both ships look quite different (one is a traditional monohull while the other is a broader trimaran), they both share many common elements. One of the most important of these is the highly automated design and smaller crew. The two different LCS designs are from Lockheed-Martin (monohull) and General Dynamics (trimaran). The first LCS, the monohull USS Freedom, completed its sea trials and acceptance inspections in 2009. The ship did very well, with far fewer (about 90 percent fewer) problems (or "material deficiencies") than is usual with the first warship in a class. USS Independence (LCS-2) was laid down by General Dynamics in late 2005, and commissioned in January 2010.

Both LCS designs were supposed to be for ships displacing 2,500 tons, with a full load draft of under 3.3 meters (ten feet), permitting access to very shallow "green" and even "brown" coastal and riverine waters where most naval operations have taken place in the past generation. Top speed was expected to be over 80 kilometers with a range of 2,700 kilometers. Basic endurance is 21 days and final displacement was closer to 3,000 tons. For long deployments the LCS has to resupply at sea or return to port for more fuel, food and other items.

The navy originally sought to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by 2014-18, at a cost of $460 million (after the first five) each. The USS Freedom ended up costing nearly $600 million, about twice what the first ship in the class was supposed to have cost. The navy believes it has the cost down to under $500 million each as mass production begins. At this point it looks like the navy will only have 32 LCS ships by the end of the decade and still unsure about exactly what it can use these ships for.

 

 


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